Suburban women could play a decisive role in deciding North Carolina's US Senate race, where the Democratic challenger has faced a sexting scandal
- US Senator
Thom Tillisand Democratic challenger Cal Cunninghamare locked in a dead-heat.
- With more than $233 million spent, this race could determine which party gains control of the US Senate.
- The suburban women, who live in close proximity to urban centers like Raleigh and Charlotte, could play a potentially decisive role in this race.
Despite the high stakes and massive spending, the race plodded along a relatively benign route until early October when explosive personal matters came to light. Cunningham, a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserve, admitted to an extramarital affair with one of his campaign strategists Arlene Guzman Todd. (Alleged sexts between the two were published by a right-wing outlet.) An ongoing investigation is being conducted by the Army Reserve. That same week, Tillis tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a White House event where others also tested positive and it was deemed a likely superspreader event.
The suburban women, who live in close proximity to urban centers like Raleigh and Charlotte, could play a potentially decisive role in this race. Historically, suburban women have been reliable voters for Republicans in the state and nationally. In 2016, Trump carried suburban communities nationwide 50% to Hillary Clinton's 46%. But in 2018, suburban women began shifting to Democratic candidates, according to political scientist David McClellan, who runs The Meredith Poll, the only
Typifying the trend, McClellan points to two races in Wake County in which Democratic women Julie Von Haefen and Sydney Batch picked up state legislative seats previously held by Republicans in districts with rapidly growing suburban communities including Cary, Apex, and Holly Springs home to increasingly diverse, young families. "A surge of women voters swung those elections to Democrats," he says.
Taking the temperature of suburban women in Cary, North Carolina
To see what women voters are thinking about the Tillis-Cunningham race, Business Insider visited a Wake County polling site in the Cary suburbs. On Sunday, October 35, despite the grey, overcast skies, drizzling rain, and a pervasive wet cold, voters stood in line upwards of two hours at the Cary Senior Center, nestled in Bond Park, to cast their ballot on the final weekend before early voting closed on October 31.
"I'm a registered Independent, and I care about human rights so I'm basically a Democrat," said Sydelle Snyder, 37, a white, college-educated, 6th-grade middle school math and science teacher in Cary. Funding for education is her top issue. When asked about Tillis and Cunningham she says, "I'm voting based on policies, and what I think they've done in their jobs and what they will do if elected." Of Cunningham, specifically, she says, "The scandal has nothing to do with the job."
Chantal Fermin, 25, who works at a Cary tech company, didn't say which US Senate candidate she voted for, but noted she's seen the negative ads about Tillis and Cunningham saying, "In the end, I wish candidates were focused less on
Conversations at the polling site track with Meredith's latest October poll in North Carolina: people of color, women, and those with higher education are more likely to hold a negative view of President Donald Trump's performance.
The local Republican Party is reaching out to people of color and women
Donna Williams, the Chair of the Wake County GOP, thinks the notion of suburban women trending away from Republicans is over-hyped. "Women are concerned about the safety of their family. What happened in downtown Raleigh [a reference to the summer protests over police brutality] has people freaked out. No one did anything about it. People are afraid to say what they think publicly," she told Business Insider over the phone.
President Trump is directly making the case to suburban women — singling them out at his rallies.
In return for their vote, he promises law and order, while saying he's protecting their home valuations from subsidized-housing. "By the way, just so we can get this straight, 30% of the people in the suburbs are low-income people," he said last month in Duluth, Minnesota. "Thirty percent of the people in the suburbs are minorities. And so we're ruining this American dream for everybody."
These statements are at-odds with increasingly diverse suburban areas. Supermarkets dot the Cary landscape, as do Hindu temples like Sri Venkateswara Temple of North Carolina. More than 20% of Cary's population (est: 160,000) is Asian-American — a surging population in North Carolina — alongside millennials, African Americans, and Hispanics. Cary is already considered one of the safest towns in the country.
Williams is keenly aware of the negative perception people of color may have of Republicans, and she's playing offense. Williams highlights concerted efforts to engage these voters whom she believes are voting for Trump and Tillis in greater numbers than people think. "There are a lot of minorities who know their life is much better now than it was five years ago. We are giving them a voice, and letting them know we are here for them. We've been working on reaching out to minorities for many months," she said.
The Cunningham texting scandal
As for Cunningham, Williams feels sorry for his wife. "If a man would do this to his family he does not have a moral compass," she says. As to critics who say Republicans are hypocrites for chastising Cunningham but not Trump, Williams said, "I believe what the President did was in the past; Cunningham's affair is present life. People change for the better and the president has."
Val Applewhite, a vocal Cunningham supporter, is also looking to the past to make determinations of character. When news broke of Cunningham's affair, she said, "I wish it had not happened. His wife is amazing as are his two daughters. It is a painful, personal issue for him." But the full range of Cunningham's character she thinks should not be minimized. Applewhite served in the Air Force for 20 years and was at the Pentagon when it was hit on September 11, 2001. "What shows character? Cunningham went and defended his country post-9/11. For anyone who doesn't have to participate by putting on a uniform but does so anyway going to work for the country — that's what matters."
Since news of Cunningham's affair came to light, Meredith's latest October poll along with others show little impact on Cunningham's chances. McClennan thinks negative partisanship is at play saying, "people are voting against Trump and Tillis. Cunningham's affair has little influence in their mind."
Tillis has also been exposed to scandal in the 2020 race. Court documents obtained by the American Ledger show that Tillis' ex-wife alleged "cruel and inhumane" behavior in a 1979 divorce complaint. Voters, according to NC Policy Watch, have been largely unmoved by either the Tillis or Cunningham revelations.
What does appear to be on the minds of voters is healthcare
Meredith's October poll shows suburban women are not pleased with the federal government's response to the pandemic. McClellan said, "suburban women are very much in favor of the Affordable Care Act. Healthcare is extraordinarily important to them."
Fittingly, for a state with a motto "First in Freedom," the debate over healthcare centers on different interpretations of how safety, freedom, and one's health can and should intersect.
Due to her husband's corporate job, Jenny Maeir and her two kids lived abroad in Brazil, China, and France relocating five years ago to North Carolina. This is the first year that she's been deeply involved in the political process volunteering with the Wake County GOP.
Healthcare is a driving issue for Maeir saying, "I raised my kids overseas, and we know all about universal healthcare and socialized medicine." She's watched governments shut down supply chains and businesses where she lived, and having elected officials who protect what she calls "constitutional freedoms" is key. That US Senator Thom Tillis voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for Maier, is a selling point saying "Obamacare didn't work," and Maeir thinks market-based solutions should win out.
Applewhite is a disabled veteran with titanium in her joints. Her health and that of other veterans are always top of mind. "There's a false narrative that Democrats take away freedoms," she says. "What kind of freedom does one have if you can't access a hospital or a primary care physician?" she asks. Cunningham's experience in the military and his healthcare policies will triumph saying, "When the smoke clears, people care about life and the issues impacting them."
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